Some thoughts on bop comping


The guitar didn’t figure very prominently in the development of bebop, probably because the guitar had formerly been so heavily associated with the swing/big band rhythm section. The heavy “four-on-the-floor” feel most guitarists were accustomed to providing was the antithesis of what boppers wanted. Most influential bop groups had a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums.


As a result, when we as guitarists are faced with the necessity of filling the accompaniment role in a bop setting, we’re often at a loss. We have few models on which to base our approach… unless we listen to piano players. Once we pull out a few Charlie Parker records and listen to what pianists such as Bud Powell and Duke Jordan played behind Bird and Diz, we begin to get some ideas about how to comp in that style. Here are a few observations I’ve made through listening:


  1. Space is everything! In bop playing, “chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk” is simply not appropriate. Think of the chords you play as being more like interjections during a conversation:

Soloist: “I went to Jack’s party last night…”

Comper: “Yeah?”

Soloist: “I’ve never seen so many gorgeous girls in my life.”

Comper: “Oh, really?”

  1. Big five-and-six-string barre chords with lots of doubling are totally wrong for this music. Bud Powell, arguably the greatest bop pianist, would often strip a chord voicing down to just two notes! Put in the right place at the right time, two notes can sound huge.
  2. Pay special attention to the note you put on top of a chord voicing. Once you get familiar with enough voicings, your “top line” can become a very simple form of counter-melody. Its rises and falls can create interest in their own way.
  3. Avoid putting a melody note on top of your voicing; that tends to clutter up the sound and invites intonational clashes with the soloist.
  4. Bop compers often avoid playing on the downbeat, preferring to let the soloist have the opportunity to “lead”. (This is especially so on uptempo tunes.)
  5. The root and the fifth are two tones which can often be omitted from voicings, especially if they’re omitted in favor of “color tones” like the 13th or 9th or alterations (b9, #9, +5).
  6. Be careful in your use of alterations on dominant chords. Listen to the soloist; different players have different approaches to dominant harmony. Some like to alter heavily; others don’t. If your soloist is “laying on” a natural 9th and you’re “laying on” a 7#9 chord, that’s not going to sound too good! Also, if the soloist is playing a lot of altered 9ths, maybe you don’t need to be playing those tones and could avoid 9ths altogether.
  7. The overall feel of good bop comping is light and propulsive, never heavy or sluggish. Make your attacks focused and decisive… without excessive volume. Nothing kills the feel of a bop groove like overly loud, insensitive playing.
  8. Interaction is a crucial part of your job when you’re comping. Listen to the overall sound of the band, not just what you’re playing. Find things to do which add something worthwhile to the music. Often, the thing the music needs most is for you not to play! I’ve analyzed some examples of the comping of famous bop pianists and found that the amount of silence in a chorus can be 80%…or even as much as 100%!